Northern Trust Preview, Picks & Analysis
The FedEx Cup Playoffs begin with the Northern Trust (formerly the Barclays) at the Ridgewood Country Club but without Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman, Bitterly disappointed with his performance at the US PGA Championship on a course that was made for him, has withdrawn from the first tournament of the series, determined to find his very best form with the Ryder Cup just around the corner.
McIlroy began the year with high hopes, and an early victory on the PGA Tour implied that maybe this was going to be a turning point for the man most people predicted would be dominating the game. But after going into the final round of The Masters in position to finally achieve the career grand slam, he tailed off badly. Then he missed the cut at the US Open. He finished joint runner-up at Carnoustie during The Open, just two shots behind winner Francesco Molinari, but having missed a bucketload of short putts over the course of the four days on the east coast of Scotland he found it difficult to take many positives away from the experience.
He fully expected to contend at Bellerive but was never in the hunt as Brooks Koepka won his second major of 2018 after a thrilling battle with Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and defending champion Justin Thomas. With three majors to his name, 28-year-old Koepka is now just one behind McIlroy. His performance in the season’s final major hurt him deeply and he promptly withdrew from the Northern Trust, announcing that he was determined to go away and get his game back into shape for the conclusion of the FedEx Cup and, more importantly, for the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Paris at the end of September.
Not that the tournament will suffer for McIlroy’s absence. It is worth focusing on what Woods has achieved to make it this far. Barely 12 months ago he did not know if he would ever play competitive golf again and was ranked well outside the top 1,000 in the world. His runner-up finish at Bellerive meant that he leapt from 49th place in the FedEx Cup standings to 20th. He will arrive at Ridgewood looking for his 80th PGA Tour title and his first victory on tour since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He has never won the Northern Trust but has twice been runner-up, in 2009 and on his last appearance here in 2013.
Despite winning the US Open and US PGA, Koepka will go into the first event in third place in the standings, behind world No 1 Dustin Johnson and Thomas. It is his fourth appearance in the tournament but his first time at Ridgewood, and his best finish in the tournament was the tie for 49th he achieved last year. There isn’t a pundit anywhere in the world who would bet against him improving on that performance this time around.
There are many who will welcome the return to form of Scott, the genial Australian who has endured a torrid time of late. He went into the US PGA in serious danger of missing the FedEx Cup Playoffs altogether, as he found himself in 120th place in the standings. But his third-place finish saw him climb 50 places.
Unsurprisingly, it has been won by some notable players. The champion in 2011 was Dustin Johnson, who also won last year, in 2012 it was won by Nick Watney, in 2013 by Scott, in 2014 by Hunter Mahan, in 2015 by Jason Day, and in 2016 by Patrick Reed.
Jordan Spieth will be looking to put some gloss on what has been a disappointing season. Unlike McIlroy, he doesn’t even have the consolation of a single PGA Tour title to his name in 2018 and apart from The Masters, where he came close to winning, he hasn’t really contended on the final day in the majors either. When the American is at his best he holes putts for fun, from all angles and all distances. But when he struggles, he misses an awful of short putts. He was magnificent on the greens at Augusta way back in April and has always insisted that he is not concerned buy his erratic touch on the putting surfaces, but it has to be playing on his mind. To make matters worse, he misses too many fairways when he has a driver in his hands, often by 50 yards or more.
But here’s the thing with Spieth - he is a cussed character who never gives up and never knows when he is beaten. Nobody will be more determined to finish the season on a high than the 2017 Open champion.
There is also an inevitability about Dustin Johnson being there or thereabouts yet again. No matter what you think of the Dustinator, you have to take your hat off to his resilience. Few players in the modern game have suffered more disappointments in major tournaments, but he simply dusts himself down, moves on to the next venue and starts all over again. Scar tissue? He doesn’t know the meaning of the words. He missed the cut at Carnoustie but then headed off to Canada and destroyed a world-class field to win the Canadian Open. It was like The Open had never happened.
Reed and Koepka are likely to be in the mix again too. Koepka missed almost three months of the season through a wrist injury but he has returned to the sport in even better physical shape than he was before - and that is saying something. Like Johnson, he brings golf courses to their knees with his power but you don’t win majors just by being a long hitter. There is much, much more to his game, not least a sublime touch around the greens. You can be sure that Jim Furyk, the American Ryder Cup captain, will be expecting big things from Koepka in Paris.
Koepka and Johnson are everything that Matt Kuchar isn’t, yet Kuchar continues to win bucketloads of money, thus proving that there really is more than one way to play this game. He is totally unconcerned about being outdriven by 50, 60, 70 yards or more by the game’s young guns, depending on keeping the ball in play, hitting greens (LOTS of greens) and holing a few putts with that idiosyncratic style of his. It just might be time for Kuchar to enter the winner’s circle again, but he had better hope that if he does so then he is not the man responsible for denying Woods that 80th victory.
How The Playoffs Work
The Northern Trust is the first of four events in the FedExCup Playoffs (next season it will be reduced to three), the culmination of the season-long competition that is the centrepiece of the PGA Tourseason. Only the top 125 players from the regular season FedExCup standings qualify for the Northern Trust, with the top 100 advancing to the following week. From there, the field is cut to 70 and finally to 30 for the season-ending Tour Championship, where somebody will be crowned champion and will walk away with a bonus cheque for $10m.
Tiger Woods. It must happen soon
Dustin Johnson. Another week, another course to be mastered
Jason Day . Back to his best
Tiger Woods. It’s like he has never been away
Dustin Johnson. Looking to prove he is still No 1
Jason Day. There are few better ball strikers in the game
Justin Thomas. No weaknesses
Jordan Spieth. Looking to turn around a very poor season
Matt Kuchar. Ready for a win again, surely?
Daniel Berger. A man in need of something special to happen
Tony Finau. Hugely impressive season
Brooks Koepka. How good can he become?
Francesco Molinari. Won’t ever want 2018 to end
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